Graham Doswell and Sovereign Harbour
A fisherman makes good on a landowner's 30-year-old promise
Graham Doswell never forgot the landowner’s promise. In 1980, in exchange for their support of a Harbour Bill that signalled a sweeping redevelopment of the waterfront in Eastbourne, the fishermen were told they would have a new marina. It’s taken thirty years, but in April, the fleet will set foot in new facilities that they ended up funding and building themselves, including a processing plant, smokers, freezers and space to sell their catch, cutting out the middlemen at a moment when Brexit has hit hard. The Brexit deal, Graham says, is another broken promise – but he’s still not sure he would change his vote.
Interviewed on July 12, 2017
I’m a fisherman. I used to fish with my father and my grandfather before that from beach launch boats. Seventy-two fishermen and thirty working vessels formed a community interest company in October 2013, with a view to purchase the land at the harbour and build facilities on it.
We put it to the council and the residents that we wanted to build net sheds, a fish market, processing plant and retail outlet, but they will not sell us the land until the funding is in place.
To start with, we always fished from boats launched from the beach. Then 25 years ago we were invited to go into the harbour at Eastbourne. Quite a few of the fisherman from Coombe in the east to Eastbourne in the west moved into the harbour, with the promise that they would build the infrastructure for us in return for supporting the Harbour Bill.
We kept asking when that would happen, and we were getting fobbed off. The harbour was owned by Sovereign and it got sold to Premier Marinas. Premier had no idea of what was promised, so we were stuck with what we got.
Then, in 2013, we had a letter saying we needed to move the fishing gear off the land. We asked what was going on and they said they were going to develop it. We would have been out there within a year and a half.
We had a meeting with the fishermen and decided to try and fight, especially since we were promised a permanent mooring if we supported the Harbour Bill. We’ve gone from being given notice to the position we are in now, where we have planning permission, the funding in place and there’s just a few ends to tidy up and we should be up and running with it.
Today is a turning point where it’s all coming together for us. I spoke to the Marine Management Organisation about their informal offer of 80 per cent. We put the application in for a final sum of money from [the Government’s] Growing Places fund. I’m pretty confident.
I voted Leave. All the fishermen voted to leave. There was a flotilla of fishing boats on the Thames and along the Embankment. We got support from the public, then. It was quite a proud day and we felt that we could win the day. I’d like to think that turned the tide.
My family has been fishing since before we joined the EU. For quite a few years the common fisheries policy didn’t affect us but over time it came to bear that we were regulated by the EU. It’s so unfair. We have some amazing fishing grounds, really productive, but our fishing efforts were curtailed, we had to tie up and stay ashore and there would be other fishing groups fishing off the shore.
It got to the stage where you couldn’t make a living.
The potential is absolutely fantastic. The inshore fleet could get back to being a huge producer of fine fish. What people don’t take into consideration is that our fish stock in the UK, a huge percentage of that is taken by the EU vessels and the UK boats only get a percentage of the fish. That’s an infinite resource. If the stocks are fished sustainably, they reproduce and the stocks stay level. When you have the rest of the EU taking huge proportions of that, I don’t see how we can manage it. We need to manage our waters again.
Interviewed on January 22, 2021
The new harbour facilities are looking fantastic, they are coming on really, really well. In the middle of April stage one should be finished, which is the fish market, the fish shop, the ice-making plant, the blast freezer, fish smoker, all the stuff we’re putting in so we can process and sell our own fish.
It’s incredible really after all the hold up. We’ve had all sorts of stuff: the Carillion thing, where we were going to buy the land freehold from them, they folded, they sold it to Premier Marinas behind our back, then our construction company went into liquidation. All the time we were negotiating with them they sold the freehold to Premiers who refused to sell the freehold to us so we had to get a leasehold on the site, which took over a year. Which was just ridiculous – trying to tie us up in knots. Very difficult to work with.
Anyway, we got there in the end. I think we wore them down! We got a 75-year lease on the land. We got everything up and running and got the contractors on site and it’s been forging ahead.
I was a bit angry about the 75-year lease. I just think, under the circumstances, we were negotiation with Carillion for a freehold – I felt it was stingy. But it was like, take it or leave it, really. Because we had so many holdups.
How’ve I kept going? I don’t know, I think I’m crazy!
Absolutely determination, dogged determination. We had an awful lot of problems. I’m the only one left who was in negotiations from day one and I was determined not to let them get away with falling short. We supported the Harbour Bill going through in the first place and they were going to do all sorts for us. It’s only really after 25 years, we kept looking at it going, “Well, hang on a minute, when’s the infrastructure for the fishing fleet?”
They made it really difficult for us and hoping that we’d fall by the wayside and it would never get completed – which to be honest, there were times where you wondered if it’s ever going to happen. But it did, and it is.
I don’t see why another fleet couldn’t do something similar to this – but it’s really, really not easy. We have been so lucky, we had the right bunch of people to help us. I was able to put hundreds and hundreds of hours into it for nothing. It is possible – but, wow. It’s difficult.
What we have found is, a lot of people want to buy local again.
We will have a shop with fresh fish, and we want to do a box scheme, a local delivery round the area. Caroline Bennett who owns Sole of Discretion in Plymouth is going to help us to set up that online purchase and delivery. We’re optimistic that that’s going to be a good thing to go into.
Meanwhile the fleet has increased a little bit because there is nowhere like it near, not where it’s owned and run by and for fishermen. It’s encouraged people to come into the harbour. It’s buoyant. Once we get up and running, we’ll go from strength to strength.
We were devastated by the build-up to the Brexit vote.
The majority of fishermen supported it and after all the promises of better access to our own waters, more quota… moving the fisheries limits from six to twelve miles [away from the coast] was the minimum that we were going to get. None of that has come to fruition with the Brexit deal. I was absolutely devastated, really cheesed off.
If you look at all the graphs about the health of the fish stocks, the graphs are a big curve down. We have found, particularly in the Channel, the effort of the big European ships have gone up. They have opened up new fisheries that weren’t there 20 years ago. Because they can fish just about any weather they can zero in on a stock – it’s almost like they are ploughing a field. They have the technology, so once they find fish, they can absolutely target it and catch a lot of it. We’re small boats, we’re restricted by the weather and the type of gear we use. It’s very selective. If we would have had 12 miles back we could have managed the fisheries properly.
The main catch for the quay is still whelks. The whelk exports [outside Europe] are still up and running, and fairly well. The price is down a little bit but it’s mostly good. What we’re going to be able to do now, instead of everyone coming to shore, sending them to a wholesaler market who transports them to the processors, we will have a cold storage. We can hold them ourselves, so we have cut out the middle men and more of the profit goes back to us. Same with the fish, now you come ashore, land your fish and go to a wholesaler who sends them on to France or Belgium to be processed – we are cutting out that middle man. It’s enough to make a good difference.
I think Brexit has changed the way I think. They’re all liars, absolutely. But I would still have voted to leave. I think if it hadn’t been for Covid there would have been demonstrations about it.
They're almost hiding under the Covid cloud and when that goes things will become uncomfortable for them.
It concerns me that if something doesn’t happen and this is allowed to continue, the industry will be in such decline that it will struggle to make ends meet. Had we not done the quay development it would be a much much more serious situation for us. But there is the hope that we can move forward with our own marketing and things will improve. At least it does give us hope, a sense of achievement, that we can have our destiny in our own hands – at least as far as the marketing is concerned.
This short film is lovely, if you want to see more of Graham and the fishermen at work. An update from last week: Razia and the Christchurch Road community land trust are still waiting to hear about their funding application after two members of the Greater London Authority forgot to turn up to the meeting. “These are unnecessary delays,” she told me. “The community is in limbo.” But there was some good news for the community housing sector this week after the government committed £4m to help groups apply to the Affordable Homes Programme. Thanks for reading – and if you think someone else would like this, please forward them this email where they can subscribe for free.